Loneliness Is What Drives Some People to the Right Wing

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A few years ago the English economist and author Noreena Hertz started interviewing right-wing voters in the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S. “What kept coming across, time and time again, was how lonely they felt,” she says.

Those interviews became the basis of a book, being published in the U.S. on Feb. 2, called The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart. “I define loneliness broadly to include craving the intimacy and company of friends and family and feeling disconnected from them, and also feeling disconnected from your employer and your government, and feeling uncared for and unsupported,” she says.

There’s probably some of that on the far left as well. But I spoke to her five days after the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, who hoped to overturn the results of the presidential election, so that event was much on her mind.

“If you troll through the alt-right [websites], loneliness is a theme that you see time and time again in social media feeds,” Hertz says. “What Trump has done so effectively, as have right-wing politicians across the globe, is they have wielded community like a sword.” Trump’s message to the Capitol invaders when he urged them to go home—“we love you”—was telling, Hertz says. “He used the language of love, parenting, speaking to their sense of forsakenness. ‘I’m the only one who sees you, hears you,’ whether that’s true or not.”

Hertz is a popularizer of economics with a show on SiriusXM and an honorary professorship at University College London. Her previous books took on the threat of unregulated capitalism, the risks of debt in developing nations, and how to make decisions in the digital age. For her latest book she acknowledges her debt to thinkers including Emile Durkheim and Hannah Arendt, who wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that totalitarianism “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

So what are her solutions? Deal with “legitimate economic grievances.” Restore the power of labor unions. Restore funding for libraries, youth clubs, day care centers, old-age centers. “People don’t have physical spaces where they can come together,” she says. “There’s a real imperative to reinvest in the infrastructure of community.”

Hertz also praises experiments in bringing people together. In Germany in 2017, the online version of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit paired up 1,200 people of opposing political viewpoints and encouraged them to meet to hash out their differences. Rwanda, which lived through a civil war and genocide in 1994, has monthly mandatory community service called Umuganda. French President Emmanuel Macron has experimented with bringing teenagers of different walks of life together for two weeks of community service in a camplike setting that includes daily singing of the Marseillaise.

Oh, and get off social media. In 2018, researchers from Stanford University and New York University randomly deactivated the Facebook pages of some volunteers for four weeks right before the November elections. They found that in comparison to the volunteers who weren’t deactivated, the ones who got off Facebook socialized more with family and friends and reported increased well-being (PDF).

Hertz says researching the book changed the way she lives. “Before I did my research, I would travel around the globe, always be in planes, hotels, airport lounges. I had really seen myself as a global citizen, and the local was something I hadn’t given much thought to.” Now, she says, she and her husband make a point of supporting shops and events in her London neighborhood, “nodding and saying hello to the postman and the person walking their dog.”

Says Hertz: “I liked my neighborhood before, but I probably didn’t understand the importance of feeling rooted in that neighborhood.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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